Illicit Drug Abuse and Addiction

In 2014, The National Household Survey on Drug Use and Health revealed that the percentage of Americans, age 12 and older, that were illicit drug users was higher in 2014 than in every year from 2002 to 2013. Illegal drugs are illegal to use, make, or sell, are highly addictive, and can cause serious health problems.

What is Drug Addiction?

Also known as substance use disorder, drug addiction is a dependence on an either illegal or legal drugs or prescription medication. Those affected have the compulsion to use a substance regardless of whether or not it could be harmful to themselves or others around them. Some users want to quit but often find they can’t do it on their own. Drug addiction can result in serious, long-term consequences. Including problems with relationships, employment, mental and physical health, and the law.

Which Drugs Are Commonly Abused?

Even though there is a large variety of illicit drugs with increasing availability, there are specific substances that continue to be often associated with abuse. These include marijuana, cocaine, and heroin.

Here is a list of commonly abused illicit drugs:

Recognizing the Signs of Drug Addiction

Behaviors or symptoms that are associated with drug addiction include the following:

  • Having intense urges to use the drug
  • Over time more of the drug is needed to experience the same effects
  • Feeling the need to use the drug on a regular basis such as daily or several times a day
  • Always maintaining a supply of the drug
  • Spending money on the drug, even when you can’t afford it
  • Failing to meet obligations at home and work
  • Decreasing or avoiding social gatherings or recreational activities
  • Always finding a way to get the drug, even if you have to steal
  • Engaging in risky behaviors such as driving while under the influence of the drug
  • Your time and energy are focused on getting and using the drug
  • Failed attempts to stop using the drug and experiencing symptoms of withdrawal during these attempts

Stimulant Drugs (methamphetamines or cocaine) increase the user’s heart rate and brain activity, putting them in a state of hyperactivity. Symptoms of abuse include:

  • Euphoria
  • Weight loss or signs of malnutrition
  • Disorders of the skin or ulcerations
  • Depression, anxiety, or irritability
  • Insomnia

Opioids (heroin) can alter a user’s mood as the drug affects chemicals in the brain and also slows down the central nervous system, affecting breathing. An addiction to opioids can cause the following:

  • Needle marks
  • Sleeping at significant times
  • Vomiting, loss of appetite
  • Coughing, sniffling
  • Sweating
  • Twitching

Hallucinogenic Drugs (marijuana, LSD) give the user an altered perception of their time, space, and reality. The following are signs of intoxication and abuse:

  • Bizarre or irrational behavior (paranoia, aggression, hallucinations)
  • Dizziness
  • Dilated pupils
  • Vomiting
  • Lack of coordination slurred speech
  • Extreme change in mood, becoming violent or suicidal in some cases

Why Do Some People Become Addicted and Others Don’t?

A person’s risk of drug addiction is influenced by their individual biology, social environment, and stage of development or age. The chances are greater for some to become addicted to drugs if they have more of the following risk factors:

  • Biology – Each person’s specific genes, in combination with their environmental influences, accounts for approximately one-half of their risk for addiction. The risk may also be affected by a person’s gender, ethnicity, and a presence of a mental disorder.
  • Environment – A person’s environment can be influenced by friends and family, quality of life, and socioeconomic status. Negative experiences from physical or sexual abuse, peer pressure, stress, and growing up with a poor quality of parenting can be significant influences on drug abuse and addiction in a person’s life.
  • Growth & Development – An individual may have an increased risk for addiction when negative environmental and genetic factors interact with developmental stages that are critical in their life. Even though drug abuse can begin at any age, the earlier drug use begins, the more likely it will lead to a severe addiction.

How Do I Know If I’m Abusing Drugs?

Ask yourself the following questions, write down any thoughts or feelings that come to mind, and seek the help you need and deserve:

  • Are you neglecting your responsibilities?
  • Are you engaging in dangerous activities when you are under the influence?
  • Are you in legal trouble?
  • Are you having problems in any of your relationships with a partner, friend, family member, co-worker, etc.?
  • Are you using more and more of the drug to experience the same effects?
  • If you have to go some time without it, do you experience symptoms of withdrawal such as anxiety, nausea, insomnia, restlessness, depression, sweating, or shaking?
  • Do you spend the majority of your time thinking about and using the drug?
  • Do you feel like you’ve lost control over the use of narcotics, maybe want to stop but feel helpless?
  • Have you withdrawn from activities you used to enjoy such as sports, social gatherings, and hobbies?
  • Are you still using drugs even though you have experienced loss of consciousness, mood swings, paranoia, infections, or other physical and mental health conditions?

Is There Treatment for Drug Addiction?

Yes, several facilities can offer treatment both inpatient and outpatient that can be available to assist you or a loved one right away.

How Can I Help a Loved One Who Is Addicted to Drugs?

Many people struggling with a drug addiction will rarely admit it and are typically reluctant to seek help. Signs that your loved one may be suffering from addiction include:

  • Frequently missing work or school, a drop in grades, or poor work performance
  • Lack of motivation and energy
  • Neglecting his/her appearance including grooming and appropriate clothing choices
  • Significant behavior changes including interactions with friends and family and suddenly becoming very secretive
  • Sudden requests to borrow money without explanation or missing money and items in your home

Coordinating an intervention can present your loved one with an opportunity for change. An intervention can be done by family and friends in consultation with a professional and should be planned carefully. Anyone who cares about your loved one and wants to help with their struggle can be involved, including your pastor, church members, co-workers, etc.

During an intervention, everyone involved gathers together to talk directly with your love one in a heart-to-heart manner about his/her addiction and the consequences with hopes that a plan for treatment will be accepted.

If you have spoken to your loved one and offered help and support but he/she wasn’t taking your gestures the next steps you should take are caring for yourself and avoiding self-blame. Seek support for yourself by finding people you can lean on and stay safe by not allowing yourself to get into dangerous situations. You can still support your loved one with addiction and encourage treatment, but you can’t force them to change. Remember, you can’t control a loved one’s decisions, allow them to accept responsibility for their actions.

Treatment Options for Drug Addiction

The first step is for the person suffering from addiction to acknowledge that there is a problem. Treatment options depend on various factors, including what drug caused the substance abuse and how the person was affected by its use. Typically, treatment involves a combination of inpatient and outpatient programs, psychotherapy including cognitive behavioral therapy, medication, self-help groups, and support from individual sponsors.

Chemical Dependence Treatment Programs

Individual, family or group therapy sessions
Focus is on understanding the nature of addiction and prevention of relapse
Treatment offered in inpatient, residential, and outpatient programs which are determined by the level of care needed

Detoxification Therapy

These programs provide those suffering from addiction with the necessary support they need to enable them to stop taking the drug as soon as possible in a safe manner. Depending on the level of care required, this therapy can require admission to a residential treatment center or hospital or it can be provided in an outpatient setting.


A critical component of the drug treatment program led by a professional therapist or counselor. The focus of psychotherapy will include the following:

  • Helping with the development coping mechanisms to handle drug cravings
  • Present strategies to avoid drugs and prevent a relapse
  • Suggestions for dealing with a relapse should it occur
  • Support for issues related to employment, legal problems, and relationships
  • Invitation to family members to help them be supportive and develop better communication skills

Self-Help Groups

These groups typically use the 12-step model to help with addiction. A popular self-help group is Narcotics Anonymous. The message of these support groups is that addiction is a chronic disorder with the potential for relapse. Support groups help drug users cope with any feelings of shame, self-blame, or isolation they feel to prevent a relapse.


Withdrawal symptoms are unique to the type of drug and require various treatment approaches to treat associated side effects. The process of detoxification may involve the gradual reduction of a drugs dosage or temporarily substitute other medications to help with withdrawal. Common medications used for this purpose include buprenorphine, methadone, or a combination of naloxone and buprenorphine.

Expectations and Long-Term Outlook

Illicit drug abuse and addiction is a treatable condition. It is possible for a person suffering from addiction to abstain from drug use. Many users don’t take steps to seek help until they suffer enormous consequences.

The treatment process is long, can be complicated for the user, and can include periodic relapses. Those who have suffered from addiction typically say they are never “cured,” instead, they learn positive coping mechanisms to cope with their disease.

Loved ones of a person with addiction often are faced with the stress of their own during periods of active addiction. Support programs and resources are available for loved ones as well. Al-Anon is a popular program that countless friends and family members of drug addicts have found support and guidance.